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American Horror Story: A Climber’s Obsession

Pamela Shanti Pack at the anchors after completing her new route, American Horror Story, 5.13 R/X, 350 feet, at Indian Creek, Utah.

[Photo] Kevin Ziechmann/SparkShop

“…it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice”–Joseph Conrad

The American Horror Story has been an obsession for the last ten months. It has been a nightmare–agonizing, painful, terrifying. Clipping the anchor on April 13 was one of the most memorable, perfect moments of my life. The route may not be my hardest offwidth and it may not have the biggest number, but it’s a perfect blend of the arduous American blue-collar vertical style and the elegant invert.

I first noticed the line, at the Sabbatical Wall in Indian Creek, Utah, last spring. I was mesmerized by its 150-foot wildly overhanging dihedral system composed of multiple offwidth roofs, all set on alluring red-brown Wingate 200 feet off the ground. I told my friends: “If those roofs are all offwidth, I will sell my soul for the first ascent.” I had been searching for a project that would be the ultimate offwidth testpiece–a route that was somewhere between vertical and inverted, requiring technical mastery in both realms. This looked like the perfect challenge.

When my partner for the project, Patrick Kingsbury, and I approached the wall, our first doubt was as to how we’d climb the 200 feet required to reach the massive upper overhangs. I quickly concluded starting in the wide corner system that led to the dihedral was too dangerous because of copious loose rock that funneled through an initial squeeze chimney. We instead began with an existing pitch called Miscarriage (5.11), a long and beautiful fingers-to-hands crack established by Alf Randall and Coleman “Troutman” Blakeslee. We then swung over to the wide corner system from Miscarriage and cleaned the second pitch of our prospective climb as best we could. Unfortunately, it remained ridden with refrigerator-sized blocks. After piecing together a dicey face traverse into the squeeze chimney to establish a belay at the base of the overhanging dihedral, we ended up giving Pitch 2 an R/X rating. As Pat describes it, “Pitch 2 is secure, yet terrifying. If you fall before placing your first piece [more than halfway up], you will ledge out and likely cut the line, pull an enormous block, and the whole team perishes.”

Shanti Pack on Pitch 3 of American Horror Story (5.13 R/X, 350′).

[Photo] Rob Frost

Despite the hazards of Pitch 2, I was determined to reach the upper climbing. This final 150-foot stretch naturally divided into two pitches, as a ledge system broke up the pitch at 50 feet. Pitch 3 ended up being a low-angle four-inch crack that transitions into an overhanging offwidth-to-fingers crack beneath a sandy and wildly flared offwidth roof with questionable gear. Exiting the claustrophobic flare requires a delicate traverse and mantel on an exposed and loose face. On my first attempt, I wedged myself in the flare so thoroughly that I was unable to turn my head to place pro.

Once below Pitch 4 (“The Freak Show”), we realized it was impossible to see past the initial roof. Pat aided and investigated for loose rock as well established a final anchor. One hundred feet long, the wild, overhanging corner system ran through three crux offwidth roofs, varying in size from fists to squeeze chimney. The pitch is exposed, and has sections of questionable gear. As I would learn, while the rock quality is fairly good, key face holds have a tendency to explode. The pitch begins with a twenty-foot overhanging squeeze chimney, filled with loose blocks, requiring a partially inverted style while you face outward to a stance on a questionable block. It transitions from the squeeze into a more steeply overhanging three- to four-inch crack that requires calf-locks through a bulge and widens into a nine-inch pod.

Above this, the route transitions back into a claustrophobic, overhanging seven- to nine-inch squeeze for thirty feet…then into a short but even steeper four-inch-wide roof crack requiring a powerful partial invert off a fist onto a sandy, sloping ledge. I am hesitant to grade the pitch, as it’s in its own category somewhere between vertical and invert, but I have never climbed a vertical offwidth as difficult. It requires a demanding combination of circus-style inverted offwidth technique as well as traditional vertical technique: technical offwidth wizardry meets pure physical brutality.

The highlight was regaining the belay ledge on Pitch 4 for the first time this season after ten months of rehabbing a severe injury. While I was injured, I kept telling myself, “You will be back at that anchor and you will feel like no time has passed,” just to remind myself that while the process of recovery might feel like eternity, it is only a short bit of time, ultimately. And I was right: back at that ledge, I felt like no time had passed and yet I was more thankful to be there–on this beautiful, intimidating, majestic climb in the desert–than almost anywhere I had ever been. Clipping the anchor on Pitch 4 was also a tremendous moment, as I had decided after falling at the top anchor (the crux) on a previous attempt that I wouldn’t project the last move but would instead start back at the belay ledge each time. The crux pitch took three attempts, none of them casual–I tried hard. After each attempt, I went back to camp and slept for twelve hours. It’s a physically brutal pitch, and I was battling my fear of reinjury. I needed to complete this route to recover from my injury psychologically and physically. It was closure for a chapter of my life that had been a tremendous emotional battle.

Shanti Pack on Pitch 4, American Horror Story.

[Photo] Kevin Ziechmann/SparkShop